After almost nine months of working in the hospital, facing tragedy, death, suffering, I am recently coming to a more clear understanding of how I face it, how I can continually encounter it. The temptation for me, and I would imagine for many, is to come up with a reason, an explanation, or even some way of being prepared for the devastation of life lost suddenly or illness. Visualizing how I might be, getting my skills in the grief process honed in, numbing… there are lots of ways to be prepared, some better than others, many that I regularly utilize.
I am now saying I never am “prepared” for this. I wish and hope and pray on everything I know that it doesn’t happen, on my shift or anyone’s shift. I get a call and the first thought that goes through my head is, “Oh dear God. Not again.” For me, there is not a pretending that it doesn’t happen, or that it won’t, but a desperate hoping that individuals, families, or communities will not have to suffer today. And when they do, I am hit in the gut with the sadness, the devastation, the agony that they still do, despite my deepest wishes. I never want to be “prepared” for this. Because most of the people I meet are not. And i want to be near to them in their pain, to try to understand, even in the slightest, what it might be like for them.
And when I leave a family, or someone leaves the hospital, I have to say goodbye and do it all again. And the thing that helps me is to recognize that this really did happen and it happens countless times every. single. day. There is no pretending, no numbing (as much as I am able), just acceptance and a continuing hope that it won’t happen again.
Now that I have begun my residency for hospital chaplaincy, I have had plenty of opportunity to reflect on my view and process of suffering. In a recent conversation with a friend, I was asked my view on suffering as it pertains to helping others work through their own suffering and being able to internally deal with my own suffering and that suffering I hear on a daily basis. How do I not become overwhelmed? How do I translate my views in such a way that helps the other despite differences in theology or spiritual paths? What is even appropriate to share with others about why suffering happens?
Why does suffering happen anyway? My immediate response is one of, “I really don’t know.” There is some suffering that simply cannot be explained. I have heard from many different places that we live in a sinful world, that humanity is inherently sinful because of what Adam and Eve did in the garden when they disobeyed God. So because humanity is sinful, we do sinful things, and of course that is why we need to repent and believe the right things about Jesus so that we have access to his transformational power to change our nature and at least not have to suffer for all of eternity. In my thinking, this doesn’t cut it in so many ways. It still doesn’t answer why I and so many others still have to face suffering in this life. It also seems like a minimization of someone’s current troubles in order to fit them into a system of beliefs that moves them from focusing on the pain here and now to hope in something that they or we haven’t experienced yet. It doesn’t fit with my belief in a God who suffers with us and doesn’t want his children to suffer. I have also heard people say that suffering happens to teach us something. While God doesn’t want us to suffer, he allows it to happen to us so we can become stronger. I could never give this to someone as a reason for why they are suffering. “God wants to teach you something.” What kind of help does that give when someone has lost their child or their loved one, or they are faced with the loss of a limb or cancer? Continue reading My soul resource in suffering
Wisdom from Rachel Naomi Remen, in Kitchen Table Wisdom:
“Everyone alive has suffered. It is the wisdom gained from our wounds and from our own experiences of suffering that makes us able to heal. Becoming expert has turned out to be less important than remembering and trusting the wholeness in my self and everyone else. Expertise cures, but wounded people can best be healed by other wounded people. Only other wounded people can understand what is needed, for the healing of suffering is compassion, not expertise.
“[In a Master’s class given by Dr. Carl Rogers, he shared,] “Before every session I take a moment to remember my humanity. There is no experience that this person has that I cannot share with him, no fear that I cannot understand, no suffering that I cannot care about, because I too am human. No matter how deep his wound, he does not need to be ashamed in front of me. I too am vulnerable. And because of this, I am enough. Whatever her story, she no longer needs to be alone with it. This is what will allow healing to begin.”
“Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing. It is often the quality of our listening and not the wisdom of our words that we are able to to effect the most profound changes in the people around us. When we listen, we offer with our attention an opportunity for wholeness. Our listening creates sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person That which has been denied, unloved, devalued by themselves and by others. That which is hidden”
This is, in great part, why I am so drawn to spiritual direction and why I am so blessed to offer this gift to the community. I don’t claim to be an expert. But I do listen well, and I believe in the power of the divine to heal when we pay attention. We are all equals, all in process, all becoming. I trust this… do you? What is your experience of listening or being listened to that led to healing?
“If there is any posture that disturbs a suffering man or woman, it is aloofness… After so much stress on the necessity of a leader to prevent his own personal feelings and attitudes from interfering in a helping relationship it seems necessary to re-establish the basic principle that no one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with his whole person into the painful situation, even destroyed in the process. The beginning of all [good spiritual leadership] is to give your life for others. Thing about martyrdom can be an escape unless we realize that real martyrdom means a witness that starts with the willingness to cry with those who cry, laugh with those who laugh, and to make one’s own painful and joyful experiences available as sources of clarification and understanding.
“…In short: ‘Who can take away suffering without entering it?’
“The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there. Our lives are filled with examples which tell us that leadership asks for understanding and that understanding requires sharing. So long as we define leadership in terms of preventing or establishing precedents, or in terms of being responsible for some kind of abstract ‘general good,’ we have forgotten that no God can save us except a suffering God, and that no man can lead his people except the man who is crushed by its [pain]... Personal concern makes it possible to experience that going after the ‘lost sheep’ is really a service to those who are left alone.” (Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer) Italics mine
One of the things that I love most about offering spiritual direction and companioning as my practice as work is that there is so much more room for responding to the movements of Spirit and less “protocol” for staying removed from people’s pain. So often, directees have left my office and I have found myself crying in compassion and sadness for their situation. How needed are those who will enter the pain with us and let us know that we are not alone.
Though Nouwen asks his question about taking away suffering by entering into it, I don’t believe that it is the director who does this. What I do believe is that the director points to and helps to notice a compassionate Source who does take away suffering and does enter into it. Healing happens… I don’t know when, who, where, or always how, but it is always a reality in the midst of our pain.
“The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe…. All is registered in the “boundless heart” of the bodhisattva. Through our deepest and innermost responses to our world – to hunger and torture and the threat of annihilation – we touch that boundless heart…
Experience the pain. Let us not fear its impact on ourselves or others. We will not shatter, for we are not objects that can break. Nor will we get stuck in this pain for it is dynamic, it flows through us. Drop our defenses, let us stay present to its flow, express it – in words, movements and sounds.” (Joanna Macy)
The Cosmic Christ is present wherever there is pain. The Cosmic Christ unites all this pain in the one divine heart, in the one divine – but wounded – body of the Christ which is the body of the universe. The Cosmic Christ is the crucified and suffering one in every creature, just as much as the Cosmic Christ is the radiant one, the divine mirror glistening and glittering in every creature. Divinity is not spared suffering – that is the lesson of the Cosmic Christ who suffers. (Matthew Fox)